Problems of Syntax

If generative grammar focuses on establishing rules:

The underlying thesis of generative grammar is that sentences
are generated by a subconscious set of procedures (like computer programs).
These procedures are part of our minds (or of our cognitive abilities
if you prefer). The goal of syntactic theory is to model these procedures.
In other words, we are trying to figure out what we subconsciously know
about the syntax of our language.
In generative grammar, the means for modeling these procedures is
through a set of formal grammatical rules (Carnie, 2012)

Cognitive linguistics combines its theory of syntax with its
theory of motivation. The theory of motivation transpires useful for the cognitive
approach, since its account of radial categories leads to the conclusion that more
peripheral subcategories are neither computable or derivational (in the Chomskyan
sense) from the central category nor completely arbitrary (in the de Saussurian sense).
Lakoff (1987) offers a syntactic analysis with a view to demonstrating that radial
categories are also to be found in the domain of syntax and that they, similarly to the
ones in lexicon, motivate correspondences between form and meaning. Thus, in the third
case study of his monumental Women, Fire and Dangerous Things,
Lakoff endeavors to show that the generative view of grammar is unsatisfactory, as it
fails to observe that the meaning of many grammatical constructions motivates their
linguistic form so that syntactic structures are very often motivated by the structure of
cognitive models. As there is no point in relating Lakoff’s meticulous analyses, suffice it
to say that he offers a theory of syntax in which syntactic categories are semantically
motivated and grammatical constructions possess meanings. His conclusion is that the
central syntactic categories can be predicted from the semantic conditions, while the
noncentral syntactic subcategories are motivated extensions of central categories. What
is crucial is that in neither way can syntactic categories be viewed as autonomous in the
generative sense.

When protesting against the exaggerated arbitrariness of every linguistic sign and
against the generative view of grammar, cognitive linguistics postulates also the
principle of iconic sequencing. If, after Sweetser (1990),we compare sentences such as I
read books and newspapers versus I read a book and went to bed, we can observe that
the usage of and in both sentences is quite different. In the former sentence, the usage of
and is symmetric, since we can freely change the conjuncts and the meaning does not
change with the reversal of conjuncts, whereas the latter sentence exhibits an asymmetric
use of and, since a change in the order does change our interpretation of the events.
Sweetser (1990) explains that such an asymmetricality is ‘due to the iconic
conventions of narrative word-order’. While the sequence of the two clauses reflects the
sequence of the events in this sense that the first clause is interpreted as temporally prior
to the second, it is important to notice that the conjunction and does not convey any
information about the order of events: the sequence of events is simply reflected by the
linearity of the clauses. If we now compare sentences such as He opened the door and
entered the house and *He entered the house and opened the door, we can conclude that
the former sentence is acceptable, since the sequence of the clauses reflects the
chronological order of events, whereas the latter sentence is hardly acceptable precisely
for this reason that the chronological order of events has been violated. As Ungerer and
Schmid observe such sentences ‘are unacceptable because the order in which the
clauses are arranged violates the principle of iconic sequencing (1996:251). From the
point of view of cognitive critique of generative grammar, the following issues should be
pointed out. Firstly, it is crucial to notice that the unacceptability of the latter sentencecannot be explained by reference to the clause patterns and the rules of syntax alone.
Secondly, the phenomenon of iconicity confirms our earlier suggestion that
extensionality should be seen as rather untypical of natural languages. Finally, cognitive
analyses of iconicity corroborate the thesis that meaning and grammar interface, as
grammar transpires to be an ‘image’.

Inasmuch as syntax rules, within generative linguistics, are independent of semantics
and pragmatics, generative grammar runs counter to natural intuitions with its
implications that natural language consists of uninterpreted symbols and, consequently,
its primary function must be production of sequences of uninterpreted sounds rather than
communication. This is clear already in Syntactic structures were Chomsky declares

we were studying language as an instrument or tool, attempting to describe its
structure with no explicit reference to the way in which this instrument is put to
use (1957:103).

Generative grammar makes two important divisions: firstly, it differentiates between
acceptability and grammaticality and, secondly, it differentiates between semantics and
pragmatics (cf. e.g. Chomsky 1965:11 sqq.). With regard to the first division, it has to be
said that when differentiating between acceptability and grammaticality of sentences,
generative grammar relegates the former to the sphere of performance, while the latter is
generated by the syntax. This differentiation results in the opposition between sentences
and utterances: sentences are identified with competence and belong to grammar which
is viewed as an algorithm generating a set of sentences, whereas utterances are relegated
to performance, as they are seen as particular and contingent instances of sentences.
With regard to the second division, it has to be said that when differentiating between
semantics and pragmatics, generative grammar deems semantics to be far important, as it
deals with the meaning of sentence that is to be ‘objective’, i.e. independent of speaker’s
intensions and capable of correctly corresponding to the external world. Pragmatics,
which deals with how speakers use sentences, is clearly separated from semantics and
relegated to a role of secondary importance. Needless to say, the primacy of semantics
over pragmatics stems from the assumption that it is semantics that concerns itself with
the objective relations between language and the external world.

On discovering that syntactic categories and grammatical relations are not
autonomous, but dependent of meaning and use, cognitive grammar repudiates the idea
of an autonomous syntax and maintains that many a syntactic analysis is incomplete
unless supplied with semantic and pragmatic analyses. Inasmuch as it is not only
acceptability but also grammaticality that is determined by the context, meaning and use,
cognitive linguistics departs from the generative enterprise in its assumption that the
order in which component structures are integrated into composite structure (i.e. the
constituency in Langacker’s terminology) is flexible and variable, while in generative
grammar it is always fixed and invariable. Langacker demonstrates that special (e.g.
communicative) circumstances can exert profound impact on the constituency and,
consequently, change it in a way that cognitive linguistics can explain much better than
generative grammar. As an example Langacker gives the sentence: This target / the
arrow hit / (but not that one), explaining that the canonical NP + VP organization is readily suspended when communicative
factors favor isolating the direct object as a separate major constituent

Accordingly, Langacker demonstrates that semantics must not be seen as
autonomous not only at the level of the internal structure of the word meaning but also at
the level of sentence semantics.

Similarly, Lakoff offers a thorough analysis which shows that the rules for
combining clauses must be accounted for on semantic and pragmatic grounds. The
scholar’s analyses lead to conclusion that syntax cannot be viewed as autonomous and
transformations cannot explain all relationships among grammatical constructions, since
one can make better predictions with regard to the syntactic behavior of a construction, if
one does not disregard its semantic and pragmatic constraints. Thus, Lakoff shows
(1987:475) that the transformational approach cannot explain why rhetorical questions
such as ‘Who would like to live here?’ can be combined with because-clauses (I am
selling my apartment, because who would like to live here) and why a true question such
as ‘Which apartment would you like to buy? cannot (*I am selling my apartment,
because which apartment would you like to buy). Lakoff offers an interesting
explanation: rhetorical questions are in fact statements (I am selling my apartment,
because no one would like to live here), whereas true questions are requests for
information (cf. also Lakoff & Johnson 1999:485)9. His generalization is based on
conditions that are not only syntactic but also semantic (the clauses offer justification)
and pragmatic (the syntactic constructions function as statements). In view of this,
Lakoff shows that, contrary to the autonomous syntax hypothesis, many a syntactic
phenomenon must be understood with reference to its semantics and pragmatics.
Moreover, as the example demonstrates there is no clear-cut syntactic rule which
precludes the possibility of a question being combined with a because-clause, it becomes
evident that one must take into consideration the so called performative functions of
speech acts. As a result, Lakoff arrives at the conclusion that if a question is in fact a
statement, then it can be combined with because-clauses and if it is not, then it cannot.
Consequently, semantics proves to be hardly autonomous at the level of syntax, since
every analysis conducted at the level of sentence semantics must also include
pragmatics. In the final analysis, Lakoff shows that when it comes to the study of syntax
even the absolutely fundamental distinction between subordinate and coordinate clauses
can under certain circumstances be suspended, since clauses expressing a reason allow speech act constructions that convey
statements, and the content of the statement equals the reason expressed

Inasmuch as Lakoff’s bases his analysis on the illocutionary forces of grammatical
constructions, he incorporates semantic and pragmatic conditions into the study of
syntax and, thereby, formulates a generalization about syntax in semantic and pragmaticterms which generative grammar, being founded on the dogma of the autonomy of
syntax, can by no means formulate. Having concisely (and – needles to say –
superficially) dealt with the cognitive account of such linguistic phenomena as
metaphors, constructions, motivation, iconicity and performative functions of speech
acts, we can attempt succinctly to present the most important consequences of the
cognitive approach.